How to Sex an Abalone: A Sea Snail's Story

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Ryan Bradley


1. Pick up the abalone. This may require prying the abalone from its hold, and using a stainless steel putty knife is recommended.

But let's back up for a minute, because maybe you're wondering, What is an abalone? Or, Isn't it a board game? And maybe, Why should I care about the sex of a board game you crazyperson? To answer: It is both a sea snail and a board game. But you can't sauté the board game in butter or sell it for $50 a pound in Japan. People don't form international smuggling rings or get themselves eaten by great white sharks over the board game. So we'll concern ourselves with the sex of the sea snail, which matters because the females are worth more. That's the simple answer. But the real reason behind sexing an abalone is more nuanced, and explaining how to do it in five easy steps will take up the rest of this article. The story begins at a farm.

The farm is on the California coast, about 20 minutes west of Santa Barbara on Highway 101, near some old ranches and strands of eucalyptus trees in a canyon called Dos Pueblos. It isn't much of a canyon—more of a sump, really—and there are turkey vultures circling above some cattle, and the hills are as green as County Kerry after last year's fires and last week's rain. Here, beneath a railroad viaduct near the shoreline, under five great black tarps spread across four acres, is the abalone farm. It's run by a man named Benjamin Beede. If you met him, you'd care about sexing abalones too.

Beede is an environmental biologist. How he came to farm abalone is indicative of the creature's unfortunate history. You see, abalone are delicious. For plenty of animals, this is problematic. For a slow moving sea-snail with not much in the way of a personality and a shell that makes a really nice soap dish, it's catastrophic.

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Ryan Bradley

When Beede began researching "abs," as they're called, in the mid-1970s, he was working with a team of abalone divers and scientists to bring them back to the wild. The disappearance of the species off the California coast, though terrible (particularly for the abalone), coincided with a serious economic boom in the most seafood hungry nation in the world: Japan. This is all to explain that although Beede is a really nice guy, from the outset he and plenty of others have had an interest in the species because there's money in it. It's always been that way.

2. With the top of the abalone's shell in the palm of your hand, turn the abalone upside down. Do not be alarmed.

The first abalone eaters were ancient. Shell piles (middens) from California's Channel Islands reveal evidence of abalone gobbling from more than 10,000 years ago. But abalone were so numerous, and people so scare, that there wasn't much of a dilemma then. After the Spanish set up shop in Point Lobos, in Northern California, in 1769, they started an abalone cannery—and so began the abalone's long descent into obscurity.

By the late 19th century, abalone were being harvested in earnest: in 1879, 2,000 tons of abalone were removed from California waters, roughly 10 times more than the state now produces, farms included. They were taken for their meat, of course, but also cultured for their pearls, and their shells have an iridescent nacre still prized by jewelers and makers of fancy guitars. With the California shallows stripped bare, hard-hat divers ventured deeper, into the kelp forests. Callum Roberts, in his The Unnatural History of the Sea, writes that these divers, in their heavy suits and lead boots, tethered to boat by rope and air hose, "often collected five or six hundred abalones per person per day." In the kelp beds there were "piles five to twelve animals deep."

No longer. By the time diving for abalone for sport came along, in the mid-20th century, abalone hatcheries were irrevocably damaged. Recreational ab divers are too often blamed for the demise of California's abalone. Really, they just delivered the death blow.

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Ryan Bradley is a writer and editor. He lives in New York.

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